I am writing this because it's the product of a powerful and painful recent revelation. I'm telling it in brief snippets of memories, and it does depict forms of abuse. It's also REALLY LONG.
"I'm sick of you."
My sister in law sat sobbing on my couch. It was 12:30 a.m. this past Thursday. She had come for dinner with other friends who had since left, and we all drank more than a bit too much.
"I don't know what to do!" Another sob shook her body and all I could do was hug her and tell her it would be all right. But I really don't know if it will.
My sister in law, Amanda*, has been married to my older brother, Ethan*, for six years. They've been together for sixteen. He's the only man she's ever dated. She also happens to be one of my closest friends, a friendship grown out of time and proximity and a shared love for videogames and nerd fodder like LotR and Game of Thrones. And of course, a shared love of my brother.
I am fortunate to consider my family among my friends. Unfortunately for Amanda, Ethan is a textbook narcissist.
In 1988, when I was four and Ethan was nine, doctors discovered a tumor on our father's spinal cord. His options were few and the surgery and subsequent hospitalization was lengthy. My mother, a stay-at-home mom at the time, was thrust into temporary single parenthood that ultimately evolved into a bizarre balancing act where she became not only the primary caretaker and breadwinner for the family, but the caretaker of her chronic-pain afflicted husband and eventually her own parents who suffered from various forms of degenerative neurological illnesses (Alzheimer's and Parkinson's).
Our paternal grandmother – may she rest in pieces – took my nine-year-old-brother aside one day while she was watching us. Our mother had taken the three hour long trek by herself to the hospital in New York City where my dad was holed up for a month after they removed the tumor.
"Ethan," Gram said conspiratorially, "You're the man of the house now."
Ethan had always been bright. Very bright and quick-witted and charming. As the firstborn of two intelligent and academic hippies, I have no doubt that our parents, particularly my naturally (sometimes cripplingly) shy mother, heaped praise upon him. Determined to prevent her children from suffering the same painful childhood and adolescence that she experienced, our mother tried hard to instill confidence and self-assuredness in both of us. In time, both Ethan and I were placed into the gifted program in school. Ethan entered the program the autumn after our father's surgery. There, in that program, he was told every day how brilliant and special he is. I know, because five years later when I was placed in the same program, they told me those things, too.
I was small when our father retreated to his room, like a bear in hibernation. I don't remember much of him before the pain, only that, like many fathers, he left the house at 7 a.m. after a breakfast of halved grapefruit and Raisin Bran and returned at 6 p.m. before dinner and the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour on PBS. He carried a brown leather briefcase and wore striped ties. After the surgery, our father spent a month in a large hospital in New York. We only visited once, maybe twice. I remember he showed us the still iodine-stained scar up his spine, and the jarring silver of the staples that seemed to be keeping him together.
I remember that there were days that the pain was so intense the very sound of our voices would send shockwaves through our father's raw and sever nerve endings. I remember animal-like shouts from the bedroom to KEEP IT DOWN if Ethan and I dared speak above a whisper, or rattled the Legos a bit too loud. My mother tried to carefully balance our needs, never quite getting the fulcrum to where it needed to be, but looking back, I know she tried. I credit our Golden Retriever with being my mother's sole confidante and therapist through those first five years of adjustment. I think that dog absorbed so much sadness and stress from our family, it affected her health and shortened her life, but she was a wonderful dog. Ethan and I would dress her up in people clothes. We taught her to join in Conga Lines. She didn't need a fence to stay in the yard, and the next door neighbors would let her into their house every morning to clean up spilled Cheerios from their toddlers.
It's Thanksgiving, 2001. Ethan is in the process of failing out of his engineering program at a prestigious school. My extended family is gathered at our house. This was the year my mother and her siblings asked my maternal grandfather to relinquish his driver's license because his Parkinson's had become too much. Grandpa was getting smashed on Manhattans and waxing philosophical about children. Twenty-one year old Ethan listened attentively and then turned the conversation to himself.
"My life was great until you came along," he said pointedly at me. "You know, I pushed you down the stairs once when you were two and blamed it on the dog."
I laughed, shrugged, flipped my electric purple hair (heeeey Manic Panic!), and left the table. My mother cried later, after everyone had left.
It's spring, 1996. I have just come home from middle school and I'm watching reruns of Law & Order on TNT with my dad. It was our habit: L&O while we waited for Kids in the Hall to come on Comedy Central. One of the many fun consequences of chronic pain is also chronic insomnia. My father would – and still does – go days without being able to sleep. This particular day, I think he had taken a pain-pill too many (opiods, of course) to help send him essentially into a junky's nod just so that he could get some rest. There was more than one occasion that I would look at him, as he was this day, reclining in the only position that wasn't debilitating, prostrate from the pain, and wait with my breath held to see if his chest was still slowly rising and falling. From a young age, I feared finding my father dead.
During this episode of Law & Order, Jack McCoy was going hard against a suspected murderer, questioning the suspect's family.
The line from the episode stuck with me from that day on, as he turned to the other DA, he said, "I remember how I felt when I realized my father was an asshole," I can hear Waterston's voice even now. "Can you imagine how it must feel to realize you raised one?"
I looked quickly at my father. Thankfully, he was in the merciful and zombified state of false sleep, and he didn't have to consider how that felt, at least not that day.
I remember fights. So many shouting matches between my brother and mother. He questioned her every decision and assertion from the time he was thirteen. She was powerless, undernourished emotionally and physically, and an easy target. Eventually, Ethan would get what he wanted one way or another, whether through just ignoring her attempts at parenting, or by being sneaky and underhanded. One of his favorite pasttimes, even now, is regaling my mother of tales of his teenage debauchery and deceit; telling her in no uncertain terms, "You thought you knew, but I AM SO MUCH MORE CLEVER THAN YOU."
There were fights with my father, too. They went toe-to-toe on the front step one day, the fifteen-year-old made out of resentment and the 47-year-old cum geriatric high on some new experimental medicine and rage. My father's attempts at parenting my brother were inconsistent at best, borderline abusive at worst.
I spent a lot of time in my room with my Manx cat during my prepubescent years. He was eventually crippled by kidney failure. My parents put him down on the day of an intra-school intellectual competition and the prom. That summer, my mother and her sister took me to London for my sixteenth birthday. In my singular act of rebellion, I ditched them on the Tube for an afternoon. That night, my mother and I both dreamed about our Golden retriever. The next day, Ethan called, emotion stretching his vocal cords, to tell us she had passed from the cancer that had been eating her for years.
It's 2009, we're in Mexico for Ethan and Amanda's wedding. My father flew for the first time in 20 years to be there, and was lamed by it, spending most of the week in the hotel bed at the resort, only mustering himself for the day of the ceremony. He loves the Coati Mundi and feral cats that run amok on the resort. I drink enough Dos Equis to never want to see that particular beer again. The ceremony is beautiful and on the beach. I'm a bridesmaid along with Amanda's two sisters. During a photo op, we drop Ethan on his head in the sand and we all laugh until we're pinker than my sunburn.
During high school, Ethan excelled. He was in National Honor Society and casually earned an Eagle Scout certification in four years – he had never been interested in Boy Scouting until he realized you could play with fire and bully younger boys. He went for Eagle Scout because someone told him he would never be able to do it as a boy who joined the Scouts at 15. It was in high school that Ethan had his favorite teacher, a woman who allowed him to create his own assignments when the rest of the class was reading Toni Morrison. He had her for three years of honors and AP English. She helped instill in him the ideas my parents had planted as seeds so many years earlier: you're better than what everyone else is required to do. You're smarter than they are.
Ethan completed 3.5 years of his engineering degree before failing out for lack of attendance. He was making As and Bs, but his professors refused to pass him because he didn't attend lectures. My parents convinced him to attend community college. He left before he got his degree. One of his main assertions was that he was smarter than the professors, and therefore had no reason to listen to them.
It's January 2005. I'm sitting in my brother's house playing GoldenEye for N64 with him. It's a hovel he purchased for $75,000.00 on the worst street in the economically depressed mill town near our hometown. He's working as a mechanic and drinking heavily. His roommate will be hospitalized for prescription pill addiction within the year. We've just returned from my follow-up appointment at the abortion clinic. The father was my boyfriend at the time – an English boy I met during my fall semester abroad. I didn't have a car at school, and my brother picked me up at my small liberal arts college to take me to the clinic near home for my follow-up. I was baby-free at 20. For all the things he's done and said to me over the years, I don't know if he understands he saved my life. More importantly, he's never told a soul, especially not our Catholic mother. Somehow, this keeps him in my heart more than most other things. With that information, he could forever destroy both my mother and me, but he's never divulged it, and I know he never will.
It's sometime in the mid-1990s. Ethan has outfitted us both with copious amounts of Nerf weaponry and declared war. He shut the lights off upstairs and we pelt each other with foam darts and swords for hours. It's an uneven match, for sure, but he goes easy on me. We're laughing so hard we're crying.
"You're not doing it right."
"You're an idiot."
"Shut up. You don't know what you're talking about."
These are just some of Ethan's favorite phrases, but particularly during my childhood. I try so hard to please my big brother. When I do well, when I worship him enough, he loves me. I know it. He even lets me join in when he adds a roof to the second story of our treehouse. He shows me how you can pour isopropyl alcohol on the plywood floor and light it up. He's sixteen and has started smoking and drinking. He's the cool kid and the hook-up for all his friends. He's the captain of the soccer team and the protagonist in his own High School epic.
My brother is expanding on what is proving to be his third attempt at a career, now in 2010. He convinces my parents to let him build them a house, a crowning achievement for a budding contractor. His employees are an assortment of derelicts and deadbeats, men who can't find their feet socially or financially. These hang on his every word, and I can't tell if it's because they believe his nonsense or because he writes their paychecks. Probably a combination of the two.
He's isolating himself more from our shared group of friends. Or maybe they're pulling away. Ethan's assertions and opinions are becoming more and more odd and offensive. He starts to surround himself with people who laugh when he uses the N-word. He tries hard to scandalize my very liberal parents with his far-right views, shouting down ideas about equality and financial freedom for the marginalized as laziness. He never recognizes that he has grown up in a middle-class existence with education and freedom and his white maleness. His favorite thing to call me is a "retard bleeding heart liberal." He tells me on more than one occasion that because I'm too stupid to know the truth (whatever that is), I will be among the first killed when the revolution comes; I'm not sure if that means he thinks he'll do it himself, I do know he says it to make sure everyone in the room turns to him and makes him the center of attention. All attention is good attention. He tells my family that liberals are stupid and that we don't understand what it is to own a business. My father, who managed to invest well and participate in disability insurance before his surgery, snorts and leaves the table, slowly because he uses a walker now.
We all live in the same small town. My brother keeps my parents close, they're his second most important narcissistic supply. I'm up there, but I now suspect Amanda is his primary. So bright and kind and generous, she is bereft of the self confidence that oozes from Ethan's pores. I wonder often is that's why they were initially drawn to one another.
I'm struggling through geometry in high school – math was never my strong suit. We are assigned a project that requires we make a scale model of our bedrooms at home. My parents, artsy-types that they are, allow me to paint and draw and post poetry and song lyrics on my bedroom walls. I decide to add these to my scale model, but after the project was submitted, my teacher asked me to stay behind.
"I couldn't find your required information sheet," Mr. O says, holding my scale bedroom. "I had to call your house to make sure this one was yours. Your brother answered. He sounded so proud of you and even told me more about your bedroom."
I got an A++ on that project, if such a grade even exists.
It's my big brother's 21 st birthday. My parents let him host a keg party at our house. I'm 16 and afraid to drink. I putter about the kitchen that August night, praying one of his cool older friends will talk to me. That night, Amanda catches him in a vicious lie – the details of which I am still not privy to – and dumps him.
The next day, Ethan drives to her family's home to beg her to come back, and she does.
I'm eighteen, a senior in high school. I'm arguing with my mother about how many more privileges Ethan had at my age than I do. The fight escalates dramatically at the mention of his name. She eventually lobs her giant Mom Purse ™ at me. It hits me squarely in the side of the head. I'm slightly stunned but oddly calmed by it. I have the upper hand now, and I know it from the horror on my mother's face from what she just did. When she starts to apologize, I tell her that she's not sorry. It's retribution for 18 years of my mother and my brother telling me how to feel.
In June 2013, we're gathered at my parents' house for dinner. Ethan produces a bottle of cheap Merlot and pours one for me, my soon-to-be-fiance, himself, and each of our parents. Amanda doesn't get one.
"We're having a kid," he announces, his voice oddly flat as we cheers the first grandchild on the way.
My mother watches Arya** most days after daycare. She picks that baby up from her center as frequently as both of her actual parents combined. Arya is a bright, towheaded delight. She is verbal now at 16 months, hates snow, and wants nothing more than dog snuggles. She loves Goldfish crackers and bananas. Amanda works long hours and loves that baby to pieces. Ethan lies about meetings for work that don't exist and leaves Arya with our parents so he doesn't have to be responsible for her.
Amanda is sitting on my couch.
"He said, 'I'm sick of you' to her!" She blurts out. "I don't know what to do."
My heart breaks for that baby, but she's only sixteen months old – she won't ever recall that her father said that to her. But Amanda will. And so will he.
Amanda sobs that he has made an appointment to see a therapist. I say, "good," when what I'm thinking is, "good luck." No one will ever tell Ethan anything. How can you tell him something about himself he they knows everything already?
I love my brother. I suspect under the bluster and anger and controversy is a very broken little boy who has been trying for 25 years to be the man of a house he never understood. And while many advise cutting ties with a narcissist, that will never happen. There's a baby to consider, and the big brother who was my friend and champion for so long, even if he's been lost to the monster who thinks only of himself.
I'm on a hiking trip in Moab. I stand on one of the more jagged edges of the world.
"WHO'S THE KING OF SIAM?" I shout into the red abyss.
In the distance I hear the reply, "I am, I am, I am..."
I think of my niece and long for home.
*Names changed for obvious reasons.
**Was actually almost my niece's name.